Jeff Lofton: Jazz to the People
Born in Germany and raised in South Carolina, Jeff Lofton's trumpet sound has become a striking force in Austin's music scene since moved there about four years ago. Friendly and bright in his reasoning, Lofton has proved to be a versatile, mature musician overtly combining straight-ahead jazz with fusion. His appealing, laidback character and soulful playing has certainly earned him a rising recognition not only in Austin but across the general jazz circuit.
A talented, open-minded musician, composer and bandleader, Lofton is faithfully committed to the music he plays. Here is a man with a mission: bring jazz power to the people, ideally contributing to return jazz to a central position in the life-art-business triangle. Immersed in this praiseworthy endeavor for jazz appreciation and acknowledgement, Lofton truly feels an encouraging sense of belonging that keeps him steadily going.
AAJ: When did you start learning music?
Jeff Lofton: Formally at 11, that's when I took my first music class at school, but I always had access to keyboards, organs, pianos, and stuff like that when I was little, so my first experiences where probably messing around with piano.
AAJ: Was there a lot of music in your family?
JL:Yeah, there was always some kind of instrument around. My mom was always playing some type of keyboard so keyboard is the first thing I had. Then I got my first trumpet at 11.
AAJ: What music did you listen to by that time?
JL: I was listening to Channel 40, whatever was on the radio. Earth, Wind & Fire, Elton John, Cool & the Gang, Neil Sedaka, ELO, Brothers Johnson, and then Chuck Mangione, that was the first instrumental music. It wasn't really jazz; it was more of fusion. 1977, I think I first heard that. I was 10, 11 years old. At that time I was limited to the music collection of my brother and what was at the top 40 radio.
AAJ: How did you actually learn how to play?
JL: Initially I had band class every day in school, I had an instructor. I was fortunate to have a band director who actually played trumpet. But from an early age I really started to play what I was listening to.
AAJ: How do you remember the changes during the civil rights era?
JL: 1971 was the first year I attended public school. It was also the first year of mandatory desegregation so it was different. Going to school in South Carolina you had a lot of challenges. My biggest challenge was just the poor educational system. But it wasn't poor everywhere. The thing about South Carolina and its educational system is that you could be literally 20 miles in one direction and you could go to a failing school, just a horrible education and then you could have a magnet school that's 20 miles away that's one of the top schools in the country. It just depends on where you are. We have really good schools and really horrible schools. So in middle school I went to a pretty horrible school and then we moved and we went to a much better school. And that's kind of what made the difference for me personally. I had a different level of instruction. The band director was more into classical music. It was just a much better educational school once we moved. I was about 13 years old.
AAJ: What was the social significance of music back then?
JL: See, at that time, '70s, most of the music that was significant in that sense was played by James Brown and Bootsy Collins with Parliament and Funkadelic. You also had some social relevant stuff from the old jazz, but a lot of the music of that time which was developed when fusion was just being developed. For the first time, really, in the history of America you have free Africans, where we can express our clothing, we can express our culture, we can change the way our hair is. We don't have to relax our hair and slick it back and put linen and stuff like that. For the first time, we had a Black culture that was developing independently in the sense of people being free, and you have music that represents that. You have music that's a lot freer, that's based in rhythms, in soul, and hard bop, and you have music that can also embrace a free, avant-garde culture. You know, in the '70s and '80s, there was a lot of interesting avant-garde music developing in jazz, stuff that really couldn't been developed at any other time. You also had the soul sound coming up from the late '60s.
Hard bop was a reaction to the West Coast sound and the West Coast players, in essence the white players of the West Coast like Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Art Pepper, Lee Konitz. Those catswho are great players, of coursebut the hard bop reaction to that was coming out of Art Blakey and Eddie Harris, later Miles [Davis], Horace Silver. That sound was a direct reaction to the Miles' cool school basically, and all those players. Basically, the cool school took the blues out of jazz and hard bop put the blues back in.
AAJ: What about the relationship between classical music and jazz?
JL: Jazz is basically formed from several kinds of music. One of them is classical music. The others are ragtime and boogie woogie, which kind of are similar music. But the boogie woogie part is kind of where rock 'n' roll split off from jazz. The ragtime mixed with classical, mixed with Caribbean beats and the blues is kind of where you get jazz from. Classical music is very important to jazz really. The structures are similar. You still have the basic classical forms for music. The difference is of course you have improvisation and improvisation is based on a different type of feeling, the swing basically which creates jazz.
Classical music is very important, as you see in many jazz artists all the way back from Satchmo to the present. You can listen to Bird [Charlie Parker] play and he'll quote [Igor] Stravinsky. Like "Strangers in Paradise," that [Alexander] Borodin piece, that's played in jazz a lot. There's a lot of music also that came out that was called third stream music where the Modern Jazz Quartet and Gunther Schuller basically created a fusion between classical music and jazz. There's some real interesting music that came out of that.
But the biggest influence you see, more than anything else, is jazz influencing classical music more than classical music influencing jazz. [George] Gershwin's the most obvious of all of those. He was so influenced by James P. Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller... You can hear it in his popular writing. So you have Leonard Bernstein, [Aaron] Copland, Stravinsky, and a bunch of French composers. These classical composers were influenced by jazz music and I think that that really changed the course of a lot of the writing. You get new sounds coming out. You know, classical pieces that have saxophones; these big rhythms coming out like [Leonard Bernstein's] West Side Story (1961). And of course, even how they connected stuff like musical and show tunes. Duke Ellington kind of set the standard for what those tunes are supposed to sound like. So when you have writers like Gershwin and Cole Porter that are writing for these musicals, when they're thinking about what they're writing they're thinking in terms of "how can I make this sound like an Ellington piece. How can I make it sound like Fletcher Henderson or Louis Armstrong?"
AAJ: And how did the jump blues of the '40s and '50s relate to rock 'n' roll?
JL: Early rock 'n' roll is boogie, that's what it is. Basically you've got swing, big band era music and from that comes the idea of kind of rock 'n' roll. Rock 'n' roll is blues, pure blues sometimes, but usually a boogie woogie style of blues. That boogie woogie kind of off the rag, real New Orleans-style playing, that kind of playing is where rock 'n' roll gets its roots. But in any music you've got certain characteristics. Early jazz is basically based upon the same music that Tejano [Tex-Mex] or polka music is. It's the one and the three, which is the march form. Now, early jazz was written to march, you had the second line, so the tempo was like this [shows second line tempo]. Jazz has that. If you take it one step further you've got country music. It's the same music over and over, changed slightly for different audiences.
That beat, the one and three, becomes the two and four in swing, and that's where boogie woogie comes from, too. You have bop showing up as a reaction to swing, basically. Swing had become real popular music. More popular than rock 'n' roll was. There was nothing comparable. There was no music like that and everybody wanted to have a big band. The cats that were into bebop they wanted music that not everybody could play. They were trying to create something that not every little high school musician out there would form a band and try to do. They were trying to create something higher and greater and bigger.
The problem with bebop, why it lost out to rock 'n' roll is because bebop took the dance out. What made jazz popular more than anything else was the lindy hop and the jitterbug. It was the dancing that connected the swing music to the audience. When you connect that dance with an audience then you have the party. It's party music. Just like today; it's got a good beat and I can dance to it, just like American Bandstand. Bebop took that out. They would actually put up signs saying "No dancing." And you can dance with bebop too, it's got all those same elements. Once you take the dance out it's bound up. Once you take the popular music and turn into a non-dancing music, some other dance music is going to arrive. That's just how it happens.
People wanna dance, they wanna party and they want music for that. So once you take bop and bop gets popular, if they can't dance to it they're gonna turn into something else: rock 'n' roll. Rock 'n' roll, of course, with the boogie woogie element. There wasn't better music to dance at the time. Boogie woogie was where everything was coming from. And, of course, it's more focused on lyrics and melody and it's always simple. Just blues, play some simple lines on it and give them some lyrics so they can dance. That was the death of jazz in a lot of senses.